The honest experience of one of Dohn’s dedicated volunteers offers a profound example of what Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, suggests by “Getting Proximate, and Staying Proximate”
Mike Steiner’s St. John’s talk • February 16, 2020
I’m thankful for being asked to talk about what St. John’s means to me. It’s forced me to sort out complicated feelings about my Lutheran past and fully appreciate my UU present. As you can tell by how I talk and behave, I spent my first 28 years in Minnesota. Despite having lived away for most of my life, Minnesota nice and Minnesota Lutheranism remain much of who I am. In the time I have, I’d like to mention a bit about my background; then describe my late life discovery of Unitarian-Universalism; and finally focus on a powerful St. John’s experience, my volunteer work at the Dohn School.
I grew up on the western edge of Minneapolis, the oldest of six children. My father, the son of Danish immigrants, was raised on a hardscrabble truck. My mother, the daughter of an English army officer and war veteran, was a 17-year-old school girl living near Oxford in early 1944 when she met my 20-year-old father, an American GI. They had a swift romance just before he shipped off for D-Day at Normandy. “I fell for your mom like a ton of bricks” my dad would tell us throughout the seventy years they were together. They married in May 1945, after my father flew back across the channel to England as the war ended and were quickly separated when he was redeployed a few days later to head to the Pacific front. It took more than a year for my war bride mom to reach Minneapolis and reunite with my father in mid-1946; I was born exactly nine months later in early 1947.
This is a common World War II baby boom story shared with many of you, but it also provides a deeper sense of my English-Danish-Minnesota-nice background and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-Lutheran, all-white, work ethic-driven, keep your light under a bushel, don’t get too big for your britches religious upbringing that followed. The place I grew up in was much closer to the Minnesota of Sinclair Lewis and Garrison Keillor than that of Bob Dylan and Prince Nelson, closer to the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” than Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The guilt-inducing Lutheran message I absorbed was a far cry from the self-affirming coming of age our St. John’s kids experience. We were memorizing Martin Luther’s Small Catechism for a dreaded public examination in the late 1950s rather than valuing other faiths and learning about our whole lives and healthy sexuality as young UUers do today.
Saying this brings up complex feelings about my religious past; like Garrison Keilor’s failed attempt to nail his bitter complaints to the door of Lake Wobegone’s Lutheran Church, it’s impossible to renounce my religious upbringing completely. There are things to value in the hard-minded earnestness of my Lutheran past and in the higher realms of that faith–I think of Bach, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, all great Lutherans. Yet, I am forever grateful to have found a more joyful, liberating, social justice tradition in the spirit of Emerson, Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Louisa May Alcott, Frank Lloyd Wright, that’s reflected here at St. Johns. It means the world to me and to Lucy to be part of your beloved community. You’ve made Cincinnati a true home for us after our forty years of living and working and raising our family in California.
Volunteer work at the Dohn Community High School has changed my life.
It’s been a transformative experience in which I have learned as much, if not more, from these vibrant, sometimes struggling, young people as they’ve learned from me. I’ve come face-to-face with things I’ve made faint efforts to teach or write about in the past. I’ve gone from abstract thought to direct experience while interacting with these vibrant, deeply moving kids. Their enthusiasm and hope, verve and creativity in the face of so many racial barriers—this has meant the world to me.
They’ve brought me face to face with the power of black culture and how it is embedded in every aspect of all of our lives, is entwined in our nation as one of its greatest glories. The gift of black culture makes truly distinctive and the envy of the world. Many powerful writers, including Bryan Stevenson, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin, have described how African Americans are the conscience of our nation compelling us, in Baldwin’s words, to truly “achieve our country and change the history of the world.” And for me, no one has described the deeply rooted redemptive power of black culture better than Ralph Ellison who asked us to imagine how truly empty and utterly soulless our nation would be without blacks.
“Despite his racial difference and social status,” Ellison wrote, “something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man’s value system but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.” “Without the black American,” Ellison continued, “something irrepressibly hopeful and creative would go out of the American spirit, and the nation might well succumb to the moral slobbism that has always threatened its existence from within.”
Ellison’s words give voice to the hope I’ve found volunteering at the Dohn School. They also help me realize how far I’ve come from my Lutheran past and how St. Johns has inspired me to live a fuller life in which diversity need not mean divisiveness, and to know that we all can reach across false boundaries and begin to truly “achieve our country and change the history of the world.”
Michael Steiner, February 16, 2020